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Why Steven Soderbergh needs to upgrade to the iPhone 11 Pro for his next film

Commentary: Apple's newest phones are squarely aimed at both creative pros and enthusiasts.

Director Steven Soderbergh.

Emma McIntyre/Getty

The new iPhone 11iPhone 11 Pro and 11 Pro Max will undoubtedly appeal to a broad swath of people, but the shiny new Apple phones seem aimed at two people in particular: filmmaker Steven Soderbergh and myself. Soderbergh is the Academy Award-winning director behind such films as Ocean's Eleven, Magic Mike, Erin Brockovich and Sex, Lies, and Videotape. I, on the other hand, am a CNET editor who makes short films in my spare time, like the faux-German movie Baden Krunk.

Soderbergh and I couldn't be more different in terms of our careers, style and accolades. For example, despite winning an Academy Award, he never wrote a play that was included in the Best American Short Plays anthology. You'll get there one day, Steven. What we have in common, however, is that we both use an iPhone to film our passion projects. Famously, he shot his film Unsane with an iPhone 7 Plus and the Netflix film High Flying Bird on an iPhone 8. Less famously, I shot promotional trailers and YouTube videos for a Chicago theater company on an iPhone 5.

For years, the iPhone has been leaps and bounds ahead of any other phone in terms of recording video. The image quality, color and low-light performance are unmatched. In recent years, phones like the Galaxy Note 10, Huawei P30 Pro and Pixel 3 equalled or even surpassed what the iPhone X and XS could deliver in terms of photos, but their video never shone as much.

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The iPhone 11 Pro is definitely geared for creative professionals and enthusiasts.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The iPhone's small, pocketable size along with the great video quality and professional cinematic controls available from third-party apps make it more convenient, cheaper and faster to set up than a professional cinema camera. All this can speed up production, save money and allow you more time to focus on creating.

"'I don't want to wait on the tool, the tool should wait on me,'" said Soderbergh, quoting Orson Welles, in an interview with IndieWire in February. "I get very frustrated when it takes a long time to execute it. Like, as soon as I feel it, I want to shoot it. And so, that's one of the biggest benefits of this method -- the time from the idea to seeing an iteration of it is incredibly short, like, a minute, like, maybe less."

And that's where the new iPhone 11 Pro comes into the picture. Its A13 processor, coupled with triple rear cameras, an improved selfie camera and longer battery life should add more convenience and utility for creative types. Apple may have made the ultimate pocket media machine for creative professionals like Soderbergh and creative enthusiasts like myself. Sorry, Red Hydrogen One.

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Soderbergh (left) uses an iPhone 8 to film the Netflix film High Flying Bird.

Netflix

The iPhone 11 Pro's new triple rear camera can instantly switch during video recording between a 26mm f/1.8 wide camera, a 52mm f/2 "telephoto" camera and a 13mm f/2.4 ultrawide camera.

Apple also improved the selfie camera to match the quality of the rear cameras. For the first time, all iPhone cameras have a 12-megapixel sensor and can record 4K video and slow motion. Apple also tuned each camera to match color and exposure across the board, so switching cameras while filming shouldn't be jarring visually. The extended dynamic range feature, which was capped at 4K 30 frames per second on the iPhone XS, can now be used at 4K 60fps on the iPhone 11 Pro.

The iPhone's default camera app also got a couple of new tools, including a Snapchat-style feature where you hold the shutter button down to record video; the viewfinder lets you see what's outside your frame (using the ultrawide lens) and Apple changed the font inside the camera app to one aptly enough called SF Camera, which you'll notice on the control dials and mode names. But Soderbergh and I don't use Apple's camera app for filming. Instead we use the third-party app Filmic Pro (also available on Android) to gain advanced control of the camera's shutter speed and ISO, as well as to make focus pulls and shoot in a flat profile.

Now playing: Watch this: iPhone 11: 3 phones, reviewed. Which do you choose?
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One of the most impressive moments during the iPhone launch event was when Phil Schiller, head of Apple marketing, invited filmmaker Sean Baker, who shot his film Tangerine on an iPhone 5S, and Filmic Chief Technology Officer Christopher Cohen to show off a new version of the Filmic Pro app. They were able to take advantage of not only the new trio of cameras on the back of the iPhone 11 Pro, but also the revamped selfie camera.

Filmic Pro has a new viewfinder that can show live feeds from all four cameras simultaneously as well as record from multiple cameras. Out-of-pocket filmmakers can record two cameras, each with a different focal length, during a single take. You could record a wide shot and a medium shot at the same time, reducing the number of takes and setups you needed to do to capture a scene. For documentary filmmakers and journalists, the iPhone 11 Pro equipped with Filmic Pro instantly doubles the coverage while you only need to control one device. Honestly, that is tremendous.

(To see the Filmic Pro demo, jump to 1:27:08 in Apple's iPhone event video.)

Even more significant was seeing the iPhone 11 Pro placed in between two people facing each other and Filmic Pro recording both of them simultaneously with one of the rear cameras and the selfie camera. Normally, on a shoot you'd film one person at a time and have to do multiple setups to capture both sides of a conversation.

According to the site 9to5 Mac, the new Filmic Pro features will also work on the iPhone 11, XS and X and the 2018 iPad Pro. No word yet if any of Filmic Pro's new multicamera features will be available on multicamera Android phones.

I should note that the venerable Samsung Galaxy S4 offered a feature called Dual Sight that recorded simultaneously from the rear and front cameras and combined them into a picture-in-picture video. There have also been other phones from LG, HTC and Nokia to offer something similar to what Samsung's done. But Filmic Pro isn't a nifty consumer feature -- it's squarely aimed at professionals, allowing them to capture multiple 4K video files that can later be edited for a film.

The iPhone 11 Pro is the first iPhone in a long time to have me truly pumped to test it out, especially all of its video features. But to be honest, it seems the iPhone 11 offers all the same camera and video features as the 11 Pro aside from the Pro's telephoto camera. For me it might actually make more sense to get an iPhone 11 and use the money I'd save to upgrade the phone with more storage (videos take up a lot of space), as well as get a case that supports adding lenses like those from Moment and buy a third-party product to connect a microphone and headphones for recording and monitoring audio.

As for Soderbergh and myself? Soderbergh's Netflix film The Laundromat opens in theaters on Sept. 27 and will be available on Netflix on Oct. 18. The film stars Meryl Streep, Gary Oldman, Antonio Banderas, Jeffrey Wright and David Schwimmer. As for me, I will be furiously testing the iPhone 11 and 11 Pro, releasing weekly videos for CNET's How To YouTube channel and finishing up two short films I made: The Kitchen and Strange Case of My Sole.